By Carol J. Williams
The NATO allies have delivered a one-two punch this month at perceived dangers emanating from Russia by activating a missile shield in Romania and announcing plans to deploy 4,000 soldiers and their weaponry in nervous member states bordering Russia in the Baltic region.
Alliance officials have attempted to reassure the Kremlin that the moves are not intended as a threat to Russia. Rather, the Western defense chiefs insist, the Romanian installation is meant to protect against a missile strike from a “rogue nation” and the troop deployments are merely a rotational exercise to reassure Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that NATO is ready to defend them should they come under attack.
But the reactions in Moscow to the latest elements of NATO’s eastward expansion give credence to the warnings of some security analysts in both East and West that the closer NATO creeps to Russia’s borders, the higher the risk of a Kremlin backlash that would undermine rather than enhance security for the Western allies.
The sharpening confrontation over NATO’s presence in former Soviet-dominated states has led to intensified brinkmanship in the skies over the Baltic Sea. Russian and NATO warplanes have been engaged in provocative flyovers and airspace intrusions in the two years since Russia seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and began providing not-so-clandestine support to separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Those muscle-flexing maneuvers and the unprecedented frequency and scope of military exercises in the region have created an atmosphere of hostility that many fear will only intensify with NATO’s latest moves.
President Vladimir Putin called an urgent meeting of the Russian Security Council on Friday [5/13], a day after the missile defense system was activated at an air base in the southern Romanian city of Deveselu. The Kremlin leader ordered “measures to secure strategic balance and ensure Russia’s national security,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists after the session.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the missile shield “a direct threat to global and regional security,” as well as a violation of the 1987 treaty banning land-based medium-range missiles.
The commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Force, Sergey Karakayev, told the Tass news agency on the eve of the missile shield’s deployment that Russia is developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of penetrating the NATO defense system, signaling Kremlin readiness to engage in a new arms race with the West.
In a statement Monday, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow denounced the planned NATO troop deployments to the Baltic region as provocative and called alliance claims of a threat of Russian aggression “fully detached from reality and beyond ethics.”
The deployment of four NATO battalions to Baltic member states was approved by alliance defense ministers in February and is pending expected final approval at NATO’s biennial summit in July in Warsaw. The decision to bolster the West’s military presence in states bordering Russia has evolved since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, purportedly to protect the Russian minority and the Kremlin’s economic interests. With even larger proportions of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Estonia and Latvia, citizens of those states seized by the Soviet Union during World War II and occupied for 51 years are fearful they could be vulnerable to the kind of aggression now destabilizing Ukraine.
The perceived need to significantly strengthen defenses in the Baltic states was enhanced earlier this year by a Rand Corp. report that Russian forces in the northwest of the country are so superior to NATO in number and weaponry that they could push through to the Latvian and Estonian capitals in less time than the 72 hours it would take NATO to deploy its first reinforcements.
But not everyone in the Western defense community is confident that the influx of troops will ease any threat to the members on Russia’s doorstep.
Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a gathering at the Atlantic Council last week that the plan to beef up NATO’s presence in the Baltics will likely prompt a corresponding surge in Russian forces in the northwest to counter what Moscow sees as a threat, resulting in “another Cold War buildup here, that really makes no sense for either side.”
The Rand report was based on analysis of the unprecedented scale of military exercises by Russia and NATO over the past two years, many of which involved readiness testing for hypothetical attacks by the other side.
In an August report, the European Leadership Network warned that the constant envisioning of impending aggression could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The report by the network of European political, military and diplomatic leaders pondered the risks of a defense posture summed up by its title: “Preparing for the Worst: Are Russian and NATO Military Exercises Making War in Europe More Likely?”
The answer, increasingly, seems to be yes. In a follow-up to the research ELN conducted in 2014 and 2015, the network hosted a discussion last month among Russian and European security experts on the causes for the deteriorated East-West relationship and the prospects for improvement.
ELN found “fundamentally different interpretations, on both sides,” as to how the tensions arose and which side is violating post-Cold War treaties. The analysts predicted that the dispute can be expected “to last a very long time,” even in the event of leadership changes in Washington or Moscow.
Carol J. Williams (UW ’77), a former Moscow correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press, has reported extensively from the former Soviet bloc since 1984.